Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Culture of Behaving Badly

From some vantage points within an organisation it is remarkable what can be seen. A friend of mine holds a position in a medium-large business that allows him to see both up and down the ladder, and is well enough liked that people talk and share what they know. If I was a senior manager I would want to know what he knows. But, according to my friend, they don't know and he is not convinced that they want to know.

What do you do when, like my friend, you can see the collision coming a mile off, but you know no one will listen? Like Cassandra my friend could tell the whole organisation what is going on, but in the end all that will happen is that someone will take him aside for a quiet word (or worse) and little will change as a result.

Something similar is described in a recent BBC article: The Culture of Behaving Badly. The article describes the "open secret" of  bad behaviour which, without changing one iota in its form, only becomes a problem under the glare of publicity. In-house seems to be fine, but don't let anyone outside know about it. When "caught rotten" the individual's defence is to blame culture of the organisation.
Investigator: Erm... what... what are you doing?

Malfeasant Bank: Nothing. Just some stuff.

Investigator: Well STOP IT! You know it's wrong.

Bank: But everyone else is doing it...

Investigator: If everyone jumped off a cliff would you follow them? NOW STOP IT I SAID!

Bank (as share-price falls off a cliff): But it's part of our culture.
(BBC, 2012)

"Culture", "institutional",  "riddled"... aren't they the same thing?

Culture is a great word to use in these circumstances. In the case of Barclay's Bank - the main topic of the BBC article - it is about attitudes, ways of working, perhaps even custom and practise, that run contrary to correct behaviour.

But if attitudes, ways of working, custom and practise form the definition of culture we could equally refer to such attitudes and behaviours as being institutional or riddling the organisation. Words are powerful, and "institutional" and "riddled" are terms less open to having positive connotations. "Culture" on the other hand is a much milder, softer term, and covers over a multitude of uncomfortable lumps and spikes. Such is the power of words that they distract us from the real problem - the incorrect behaviours and attitudes.

Stripped of secrecy, and laid open to investigators and the public the relatively mild term "culture" is replaced by more direct, more uncomfortable terms:
When the shenanigans of Barclay's traders and GSK sales reps was revealed, what was said to be a culture then looked a lot like cheating, bribery and fraud.
(BBC, 2012, emphasis added)

The same is true for many organisations. Given the propensity of the old adage to become reality ("truth will out") business leaders should be wary of negative cultures developing, hidden behind soft words. Sadly too many leaders are not only aware of such cultures while doing nothing, but even encourage their development.

Targets, Peer and Boss Pressure and Silence: Three drivers for "bad behaviour" to become a "culture"

With reference to the guilty the BBC article suggests the following scenario:
...these are human beings and are probably not bad people. They were just operating within a culture where the pressure was on to achieve targets. If they did their job, they got praise, kudos and wads of slightly stained lucre.

On the other hand, if they muttered something about ethics and said "Won't somebody please think of the children?" eventually someone had a chat.
"Look mate, don't get us wrong, we LOVE that you care about the 'rules' as you call them… but we've got a business to run. So maybe if you could have a little think about how much you like lots of money and come back to us, that would be great? K-bye."
(BBC, 2012)
How often has this scenario, or others like it, been played out in organisations and businesses across the world? I would say more often that we like to think.

It sums up all three ingredients required to establish and maintain a culture of bad behaviour.
  • Targets: "They were just operating within a culture where the pressure was on to achieve targets."
  • Peer Pressure: "...if they muttered something... eventually someone had a chat."
  • Silence: They give in to the pressure and shut up.

 Target driven bad behaviour culture

Target driven cultures do not just exist in banks or the private sector, arguably the public sector might be more steeped in it. Education and healthcare are all very much target driven, and in their own way this drives their own culture of bad behaviour.

Take this allegation from the education sector:
“I worked at Solihull College for one-and-a-half years and I am shocked by what I saw,” she said.

“On one occasion a staff member sat at his laptop and did an exam for a pupil who had not shown up.

“It meant the young man could get his NVQ qualification which he would otherwise have failed.

“Other times I was asked to sit with students and was told: ‘They have to pass this exam, just make sure they pass it’.

“They would ask me if a question was right and I would tell them to do it again if it wasn’t.”
(Sunday Mercury, October 2011)
 Or this example from the UKs National Health Service:
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has told MSPs she is "shocked and extremely angry" at a report into manipulation of waiting times by NHS Lothian.

It found NHS Lothian was marking patients as unavailable to artificially reduce the number in breach of the statutory waiting times guarantees.
(BBC, March 2012)
Thousands of patients were bumped from waiting lists in an “appalling” large-scale manipulation of statistics by NHS Lothian.

An investigation ordered by Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon also uncovered “inappropriate and oppressive management styles” which saw NHS staff under pressure to cheat the figures to avoid delivering “bad news”.
(The Scotsman, March 2012)

Peer and boss driven bad behaviour culture

Well, it was true with the Lothian NHS scandal. Why wouldn't it be true in your organisation? Let's look at that quote again:
'Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon also uncovered “inappropriate and oppressive management styles” which saw NHS staff under pressure to cheat the figures to avoid delivering “bad news”'.
What was uncovered here was a blatant management tactic of pressuring subordinates into committing fraud in order that stats look better than they would otherwise.

Of course in so doing the Lothian NHS was not only failing to meet the target in reality (and only producing the paperwork that showed the target was met) but also failing to meet the health needs of those it fraudulently marked as "unavailable". In order to "look good" to seniors the targets were not met, and the core aims of the NHS were undermined. How familiar that does sound.

Looking again at the Sollihull College, that was allegedly happening there too.
 "Other times I was asked to sit with students and was told: ‘They have to pass this exam, just make sure they pass it’."

Make sure they pass an exam? How do you do that exactly, without being at least willing to intervene in your student's exam submission, in other words to cheat? This is the educational equivalent of "the quiet word".

The implications of "the quiet word" cannot have been lost on the person giving it, but delivered verbally, without witnesses, if any cheating was suddenly made public the teacher would be implicated directly, and everyone else would deny all knowledge or involvement.

Like the Barclay's Bankers, the Lothian NHS workers and the former teacher at Sollihull College can claim it was part of the culture - and maybe they are right. But it is clear that the overt or covert pressure of peers and bosses has a lot to answer for in what type of culture is developing.

Silence driven bad behaviour culture

Thomas Jefferson famously said:
"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good  conscience to remain silent"
And the same sentiment was shared again by Dr. Martin Luther King:
"History will have to record the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and other violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people."
What allows bad behaviour to become institutional, to become part of the culture, is the failure to successfully challenge it.

Where bad behaviour is seen by leaders and managers as "helpful" to their cause, and a blind eye is turned and pressure applied, those who would challenge it feel dis-empowered. In the end the majority will pragmatically judge that as "the system" (the hierarchy above them) is not going to do anything they stand to gain only personal aggravation by speaking up, and so become the silent good people. Lacking in significant challenge (only a few actually do persistently challenge) the culture continues and develops.


Ultimately the truth will out, as it does, and those who challenged feel vindicated.

Those involved blame culture and seniors, seniors in turn blame subordinates, and while investigations may reveal management involvement it is a big mess and there will be scapegoats. Those who caved in to the pressure are likely candidates for scapegoating as more senior people close ranks and cover tracks.

The cure? Break the silence!

To borrow a line I once heard on TV:
"Silence is the enemy. Public courage is infinitely better. No silence. Truth!"
It does take courage to break the silence, just as it does to daily resist the pressure to break the rules while all around you do so regularly. The word for this is integrity.

Again it comes down to conscience, honesty, integrity, vision, discipline, passion and personal responsibility.

It is collectively failing in these attributes that allows a culture of bad behaviour to thrive.

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